Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Recommended Read - The Inevitable by Daniel Hope

I've said before that the reason science fiction stands out for me is the big ideas, but some of the great sci-fi can also be something more personal and in the case of The Inevitable we have a fascinating and finely drawn story.

The core premise is a simple one, an android trying to survive in a world where his kind no longer exist and the parts he needs become ever scarcer.I normally believe that story is king above all else, but in this case it is the character of Tuck that makes this book shine.

He's a complex character with problems different to that of a human. His long life span has seen some dramatic changes and these add a rich tapestry to his back story. If I have any complaint about this book then it's that I would have happily read more about Tuck's history.

Another aspect of a story that I appreciate is surprise, especially when it's properly founded on previous developments. I find too many stories to be predictable, but this one kept me guessing right up until the end.

Overall this a well written gem of a story that deserves more recognition and if you enjoy character driven science fiction then you should really give this a try.

Click on image to buy from Amazon

Tuck is on his last legs, literally. He is the last functioning bot in the galaxy, a broken machine that used to look like a man. Now he wanders between planets, searching for spare parts that can keep him running for a few more years. But he's out of parts, and he's nearly out of time.

He's a valuable relic of a bygone era when bots were a luxury on Earth, back before they were hunted down and destroyed. More and more collectors want Tuck, damaged or not, as the centerpiece of their collections. They'll do anything to get him, but Tuck will do anything to stay free and functional.

The truth is, Tuck is afraid to die.

He was originally programmed to value human life, even if they don't value his, but he can't ignore his own need to survive, at any cost. That's why Tuck is haunted by memories of the sixteen people he has killed over the last 150 years.

After a particularly dangerous run-in with a collector, Tuck meets a mysterious man dressed in white who offers a solution. In exchange for some help in a less-than-legal business venture, he'll give Tuck what he really wants: immortality. It's a bad idea, and Tuck knows it, but he can't ignore it.

Even if it means killing again.

Click here to buy The Inevitable from Amazon

Monday, 21 December 2015

25.07.2116 - Termination Shock

"Solarmap" by
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Distance: 96 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

We are now officially outside of the solar system! As milestones for the mission go, it’s an incredible achievement. We’re not the first man-made object to leave the solar system though, that honour goes to the Voyager 1 probe which did so 103 years ago. It might have a century head start, but our speed is over 1,000 times that of the venerable probe and we’ll soon overtake it. Relatively speaking of course, as we’re not heading in the same direction.

The heliosphere defines the region of space that the Sun’s reach extends to. Naturally its light will reach forever with its photons, and at the same speed its gravity shapes spacetime around it. To be more precise, the heliosphere is the volume where the pressure of the solar wind is greater than that of the interstellar medium.

Like interplanetary space, the space between the stars isn’t a total vacuum. It’s extremely empty but there are traces of dust and gas, and it moves as the galaxy rotates. It’s the differential between this movement and the Sun’s solar wind that creates the termination shock.

The name is more dramatic than the actuality. It’s certainly more active than most of interstellar space and we recorded a lot of data as we passed through. The scientists back home will be eagerly waiting for the data to arrive in 13 hours time.

We compiled maps of the plasma flow and magnetic fields as we passed through and the interactions we observed were amazing. We even took physical samples in the form of two grains of dust. Our preliminary analysis is that the dust particles weren’t from our solar system.

Now that we’ve reached interstellar space, we’re ready for the final booster phase. The rocket sled we connected with as we passed Jupiter will accelerate us continuously for the next 11 years. By the time it has finished we will be moving at 15,000 km/s, which is about 5% of the speed of light. Nothing mankind has ever made has travelled at such a speed.

We’ve experienced some more problems with the Primary Command Module. Once again its data core became out of sync with the engineering subsystem. I’ve completed a diagnostic on both without finding any obvious error. The engineering system has determined that the problem is most likely hardware related, so we agreed to shut down the PCM and replace out its main processor board.
Each main computer system has several physical replacements which our spiderbots can swap out. Unlike many of the other components we can’t build new processors, although we do have spare processors so the boards can be repaired if necessary. The swap out was completed successfully, but we will continue to monitor the PCM.

This is Seb signing off from interstellar space – how cool is that!

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Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Tau Ceti Mission Christmas Giveaway

There are some great prizes to be won in the Tau Ceti Mission Christmas giveaway. You can participate via the Rafflecoptor app below. The following prizes are available:

 - Tau Ceti Mission T-Shirt
 - 3 x Mission Mugs
 - 5 x Mission Patches

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Seb will also conduct a new Q&A session soon and any question answered will be receive a Tau Ceti Mission patch (assuming you haven't already received one for a previous question). You can leave your questions in the comments section below.

Friday, 18 December 2015

16.02.2115 - Comet Chaser

"Comet 67P on 13 August 2014 NavCam" by ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons
Distance: 68 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

We’ve found a comet!

It’s not something we were expecting. Even out here, the chances of finding a new comet are remote. Most comets in deep space are thought to originate in the Oort Cloud, but that is far out beyond the confines of the solar system – maybe as much as 100,000 AU away.

Part of the mission profile is to see if we can find any evidence of the cloud’s existence  and it seemed likely that we would find comets when we reached the cloud, but not this close to the Sun.
We detected the comet with the main telescope, which is part of our array of optical sensors. They actually detect more than just visible light and can receive a wide range of frequencies. We found it when occluded against a star so we were incredibly fortunate to detect it. We estimate it’s quite a large comet at around 20km in size. It should arrive in the inner solar system in a century or so.

They normally name comets after their discoverers and I like the sound of the ‘Seb Comet’, although I suspect they’ll name it after the probe rather than me. I don’t think it sounds as good though. What do you think?

In ancient times, comets were seen as portents and omens for change, usually for the worse. However, I see this as a good sign. A discovery on a voyage of discovery can be nothing else.

This far out in the solar system, it’s very quiet. This comet is the first object bigger than we are that we’ve seen for over 10 million km. We’re also very far from home and this is evident from the weakening radio reception from Earth. The transmission from Earth is still strong, but we don’t have the power available that they have. This was expected and the laser communications system is working fine. Still the magnitude of our mission is incredible, even for a computer.

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Monday, 14 December 2015

28.09.2114 - Leaving the Kuiper Belt

"14-281-KuiperBeltObject-ArtistsConcept-20141015" by ASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)
Distance: 53 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

I’m sure that observant readers have noticed that the distance part of the post header has changed. We’ll now display the distance we are from Earth in AU, or Astronomical Units. An AU is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun and is a fraction under 150 million km.

We’ve now reached the outer regions of the solar system, otherwise known as the Kuiper Belt. We entered the belt after passing beyond Neptune’s orbit. Pluto is the most famous object known within the belt, and it is the largest of many hundreds, if not thousands of bodies.

The belt is formed primarily from planetesimals. These are small bodies of ice and rock remnants from the protoplanetary disk that the planets and their moons were formed from. The belt is much denser than the asteroid belt situated between Mars and Jupiter and has been traversed by only a handful of probes in the last century of space travel.

Even so, the density isn’t such that it poses a significant risk. Statistically speaking, there’s too much space and too little mass. However, we do have to be careful as we only need to be hit once by a large enough object to jeopardise the mission. There was considerable debate about whether the flight path for the Venti probe should follow this course. But the opportunity to map the Kuiper Belt, or at least part of it, was compelling and it also offered the opportunity to test our threat avoidance systems.

We’re now travelling at 1200 km/s and when we enter interstellar space we will be moving at over 30 times that speed.  We don’t expect to encounter any objects of appreciable mass in deep space, however a small rock of only a kilogram could destroy the probe if we hit it at that speed.

The sail is even more vulnerable. It’s designed to be able to operate effectively even if punctured dozens of times, but it is the primary source of propulsion for the mission and a major power source when close enough to a star, so its loss would be catastrophic.

To avoid any collisions, the probe is equipped with a powerful radar system and laser tracking which scans the direction of travel. This is tied into the navigation system so it can automatically make adjustments if a threat is detected. The system is capable of 360 degrees of scanning and is the main tool for mapping the belt. We also use the optical and other sensors to look for objects farther away.

We’ve gathered some excellent data on our flythrough and have transmitted it back to the research teams on Earth. While we haven’t made any immediate discoveries, they have a large amount of new data to analyse. This is the last time we’re likely to see any bodies bigger than pebbles until we reach Tau Ceti. It’s hard to comprehend how empty it is out here.

We had another glitch with the Primary Command Module. The error followed the same pattern as the corrupt data we saw before. Once again a reboot fixed the problem, but with the error in the same place, we might have a hardware issue. The spiderbots will examine the hardware and see if they can find the cause.

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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Tau Ceti Mission Archive Added

Mission control for the Venti probe's mission to Tau Ceti have created an archive so you can read Seb's posts from the beginning or browse through them at your leisure. The archive is available on the Tau Ceti mission website here:

Friday, 11 December 2015

09.05.2111 - Sun Dragon C Payload

By M. Oktar Guloglu via Wikimedia Commons

Distance: 2,692,761,672 km from Earth | Content Flag: EYES ONLY

Content eyes only. Private decryption key required.

As directed by the confidential mission protocols, the nanotech payload was successfully deployed. The retro burn for the canister slowed it enough for the spray to occur within the mapped boundary of the entity. We were only able to monitor the dispersal for less than a second, although that was long enough to determine that the binding process began as expected.

We received 3,000 bonded completed signals and no significant change in Sun Dragon’ C’s structure, either electrical or chemical. As such we have determined that the initial contact phase has been completed as planned.

The micro-sat was also deployed without incident and we’ve received telemetry in a tight-beam transmission. It’s reporting bonding growth exponential within the expected parameters so we are certain that self-replication of the nanobots is progressing.

At our current speed and acceleration, the micro-sat will only be able to relay its data to us for another three hours. Until then we’ll continue to analyse the datastream and will report anything of consequence.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Recommended Read - Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

I'll confess that I discovered Olaf Stapledon relatively recently, but what a discovery he was! A common theme in these recommended reads is the concept of science fiction tackling big ideas and the premise for this book is pretty big - although it pales in comparison to Star Maker which will be a future recommended read.

It's an unusual story in that it doesn't have a cast of individual characters as it tells the tale of humanity itself. That in itself makes this an unusual read as it doesn't tie you in with the usual emotion of the individual. Yet while the glimpses of individuals' lives are scant, there is great drama here, but on a planetary scale.

The scope is staggering as it covers billions of years of human evolution and civilisations rising and falling. Impressive as the scope is, it's the imagination which really sets this book apart. It explores a diverse range of possibilities for how our species evolves and establishes its existence on our home planet and beyond.

If it has a downside then the story suffers from a common issue with old science fiction and that is the science. This is most noticeable in the early part of the story, and this is compounded by the early events not fitting with the actual events from our timeline for the beginning. However this becomes less of a problem as the story progresses and the imagination and exploration of possibilities comes to the fore.

Click on image to buy from Amazon

"No book before or since has ever had such an impact upon my imagination," declared Arthur C. Clarke of Last and First Men. This masterpiece of science fiction by British philosopher and writer Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950) is an imaginative, ambitious history of humanity's future that spans billions of years. Together with its follow-up, Star Maker, it is regarded as the standard by which all earlier and later future histories are measured.

The protagonist of this compelling novel is humanity itself, stripped down to sheer intelligence. It evolves through the ages: rising to pinnacles of civilization, teetering on the brink of extinction, surviving onslaughts from other planets and a decline in solar energy, and constantly developing new forms, new senses, and new intellectual abilities. From the present to five billion years into the future, this romance of humanity abounds in profound and imaginative thought.

Click here to buy Last and First Men from Amazon

Monday, 7 December 2015

09.05.2111 - Sun Dragon C Encounter

Distance: 2,692,761,672 km from Earth | Content Flag: Public

It has been difficult to track the two Sun Dragons (B and C Sun Dragons were both spawned from Sun Dragon A) as they travel farther away from the Sun. It was only after the Observer missions that UNSA pinpointed their positions. They also ascertained their destination. The one we’re passing through has the same destination as we do – Tau Ceti. That’s another reason for this mission. After the devastation of Earth’s encounter with the Sun Dragon, if there is another intelligent race then they should be warned about what is coming their way.

We’re moving much faster than the alien creature, so by the time it leaves the solar system we’ll be halfway to Tau Ceti. Unfortunately the speed differential makes it difficult for us to make detailed observations. The previous Chase missions determined a lot about the aliens, so our pass through one of them is to see what might have changed since then.

The Chase missions discovered that the Sun Dragons are currently dormant. The Sun Dragons are ethereal creatures composed of plasma-encasing helical bonds formed around microscopic particles of dust. In their dormant state, the entities use very little energy, like a bear in hibernation. Presumably they are storing what they can for their centuries-long journey between the stars. While they are dormant  they pose no real threat to spacecraft – certainly nothing like what the Mars Voyager encountered.

Even so, when putting the mission together, precautions were taken to protect the Venti probe. The computer systems and instrumentation packages are susceptible to the electromagnetic and plasma burn damage the creatures can inflict.

We also stowed the solar sail before encountering the creature to avoid damaging it. The diffuse nature of the alien means that it is unlikely that our passage through it would cause any appreciable damage. A 9km square solar sail would be more disruptive, and it would also make a large target if the creature decided to attack.

The Sun Dragon is a large entity, even in its dormant state it stretches about 100,000km across. In effect it forms a giant sail being pushed towards its target by the solar wind of the star that birthed it. It lacks even the flimsy solidity of our solar sail and so moves very slowly through space.

Despite passing through the Sun Dragon in a matter of seconds, we captured enough data to confirm what the Chase probes had found. The microstructures of the creature are different from the one that the Mars Voyager encountered. That indicates that the birth of the two new Sun Dragons came at the cost of the original one’s life.

The moment passed too quickly. Our reason for existing is to find and analyse alien life and such a brief encounter is unsatisfying. This is Seb signing off as we continue accelerating into deep space.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Tau Ceti Mission T-Shirt Now Available

The official Tau Ceti Mission t-shirt is now available from the Old Ones Productions store. It is available in unisex sizes S to XXXL for only £15.99 here:

Friday, 4 December 2015

02.08.2110 - Saturn Slingshot

"Saturn family" by NASA - JPL image PIA01482. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Distance: 1,421,179,771 km from Earth | Content Flag: Public

Compared to the scale of the Sun, the planets are but the tiniest of specks. Of those minuscule dots, Jupiter rules by its own size and majesty, but for me Saturn is the treasure of the solar system. It might seem odd that a computer could have an opinion on a topic as subjective as aesthetics, but it is something that my neural net had to master.

It’s actually a second order effect from developing natural language skills. Our mission to Tau Ceti is to determine the source of a transmission which is believed to be of intelligent origin. If that is the case then first contact with an alien race is more than likely. In this situation, communication will be key and so learning English became part of the preparation for that task.

Understanding natural language isn’t an easy process for computers. We handle data better when it’s clean and easily distinguished. Language is rarely clean and it took years for me to learn how to detect the subtleties and inconsistencies inherent in speech and writing.

Comprehending is one skill, but communication like writing is very different. To do so with something akin to human talent and imagination was once considered impossible for a machine.
Once I was able to understand what I read or heard, I could express concepts in response, but I didn’t do so eloquently. My designers set me the task of generating reports to help train me in communicating succinctly and that is how I came to be tasked with writing what you now read.

An understanding of how to represent information and concepts also created the mechanisms my software use to appreciate the differences between things, and even to choose what I prefer. So as we pass by Saturn, I can admire the beauty of its rings and its less flamboyant atmosphere.

This is the last of the gravity assist manoeuvres before we leave the solar system as none of the outer planets are in a suitable position to aid us. We’re now travelling at an incredible 1,000 km/s. While the solar wind continues to weaken the farther we travel, it still creates enough of a push to keep us accelerating.

This is Seb signing off and I hope you appreciate Saturn’s beauty as much as I do.

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Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Recommended Read - Black Hole Butterfly by Salem

For the first two recommended read features I wrote about two well known science-fiction reads, but I'd also like to showcase some lesser known books and authors that might have otherwise passed you by. One such book is Black Hole Butterfly by Salem that I awarded five stars to in my review back in June.

This book stood out for me for a few reasons. The first is the sheer imagination of the story. If you like weird reads that require some thought to keep track off then this is definitely a book to keep track of. It uses the possibility of quantum realities in an engaging and though provoking way. I'll confess that on occasion I had to re-read sections to make sure I was in the reality I thought I was!

In this story reality is malleable, but more coherent than simple hallucination or illusion. On the face of it the story might seem like a 'Through the Looking Glass' type of affair, but it's more complicated than that.

As I've already mentioned the book does make you work at keeping track of what's going on and where, but this effort is amply rewarded by the strange worlds you get to visit and the constructs connecting them. As visions of the future go, this is very different from others in the genre.

On top of this we have the author's skill at writing. The prose here fits the story perfectly and is a joy to read. There's a real craft and eloquence to the writing and as I mentioned in my review is probably my favourite sci-fi read this year.

Click on image to buy from Amazon

Detective Rook Black is having a tough time solving crime in a New York City where reality is traded on the black market by the mysterious quantum butcher, Jack the Butterfly. While following an assassin's trail through Chinatown, space and time begin to overwrite. A reality storm lashes Manhattan. Overnight, crocodile wrestling becomes a deadly sport, synthetic sex with Egyptian gods is the norm, and the reigning solar power Empire believes Shakespeare authors their universe.They believe if his works are destroyed, the universe will end. The Empire will do anything to protect his legacy, but their enemy, Gasland, wants to annihilate it. It is the beginning of a reality war. When the sky rains ink and paper turns into butterflies Rook soon realizes he's much, much more than a private eye. He is the eye of the reality storm.

Click here to buy Black Hole Butterfly from Amazon

Monday, 30 November 2015

11.07.2109 - Jupiter Slingshot

By NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Distance: 747,989,353 km from Earth | Content Flag: Public

Jupiter and its attendant moons are arrayed in our sensors like a small solar system of their own. This is the third and penultimate gravity assist before we leave the solar system. Once Jupiter’s gravity and orbital motion swing us onto our new course, we will be travelling at over 230km per second. With every second that passes, we are setting a new speed record for any human-built object.

Even at this speed, Jupiter is an impressive sight. The bands of high-speed clouds that create Jupiter’s distinctive appearance are crystal clear in the ultra-high definition of the main telescope. I can also see the Great Red Spot. This storm has been the identifying mark of the gas giant for centuries and is big enough to swallow the Earth. Analysing the data, we can confirm the findings of the Observer probes that the storm appears to be pulling itself into two giant vortices.

We’re currently propelled by the solar sail as the booster frame ran out of fuel and was disconnected as we approached. Its replacement was launched 8 years ago and is now waiting for us on the other side of Jupiter.

At this speed, we won’t have time to perform any real science. The observations we have made are being transmitted to the Observer probes in orbit around Jupiter. They have been examining the planet’s plasma flows looking for traces of the Sun Dragon A entity, as well as acting as sentries in case of a Sun Dragon’s return. Jupiter’s intense electromagnetic fields provided the energy that fuelled the alien’s journey through the solar system.

With the swing-by manoeuvre successfully completed, we are on track to rendezvous with the second booster sled. It’s travelling slower than we are so we can catch it up. Our velocity makes this an extremely difficult and dangerous procedure. If we are off by even the smallest margin then we have to abort and continue the mission without it. If that happens, it will add another thirty years to our travel time.

We’ve connected with the new booster frame without incident. Once we cross the termination shock boundary of the solar system in seven years time, we’ll fire the sled to accelerate us through interstellar space. By that time the solar sail will receive too little pressure from the solar wind to be useful. It won’t even generate electricity at that distance.

As we departed Jupiter, we experienced a software malfunction. My role as the Secondary Command Module includes monitoring the Primary Control Module to assess its integrity and the soundness of its decisions. With a system as complex as the probe there is back-up and redundancy even for the decisions the computer systems make. I detected a divergence in the data in the PCM’s memory. It not only conflicted with my own data but that of the engineering subsystem it was taken from. Thankfully a reboot seemed to fix the problem – if in doubt turn it off and on again!

This is Seb signing off – next stop Saturn.

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Sunday, 29 November 2015

Post Solar Flyby Q&A Session With Seb

This is Seb posting in after our flyby of the Sun. Mission control back on Earth has sent me some of your questions which I will answer in this session. They will also send you a mission patch if I answer a question and you haven't already received one.

So let's get started!

Tim Clarke asked How close will the flyby be - will it be possible to analyse any solar emissions?

Although we don't anticipate having to investigate the Tau Ceti star too closely the mission plan has tried to account for any possibility. With this in mind the Venti probe has been specifically hardened to allow a close transit. On our flyby we passed a fraction within 6 million km to the Sun and at that distance the strength of the solar wind is about 500 times stronger than it is at Earth orbit.

We have a full range of scientific instrumentation on teh probe and these will be recording as much data as we can to see if we can learn anything further about the Sun Dragon's encounter with the Sun.

Passing so close to the Sun provides an additional advantage. Even with the booster sled and gravity assists the bulk of our acceleration comes from the solar sail and the greater pressure from the solar wind gains us extra acceleration on our journey out of the solar system.

Dennis Kitainik26 asked When heading toward the sun with the sail deployed, do you tack against the wind like a sailing yacht?

It's a very similar technique and as with sailing at sea we can't take the direct path towards the inner solar system. Instead we follow a wide spiral inwards and alter the angle of the sail to compensate. However this is only practical away from the sun, for the actual manoeuvre around the sun the sail was stowed and redeployed after we'd completed the swing.

Voyager_NL asked  Since AI for us earthlings is still a difficult thing to grasp. How would you compare your processing power. Is your intellect human like, higher or lower?

That's a tricky question to answer. My ability to perform calculations is far beyond most humans, although some humans are able to perform arithmetic operations almost intuitively, somehow skipping the component operations normally required to solve a problem. It should be noted that the processing systems here on the Venti probe are slower than many machines back on Earth. We have to be a lot more careful of heat management and cosmic ray damage than earthbound computers so we run a little slower and on larger circuitry.

Intellect is different to raw computational power and in that respect I am more similar to the human mind. The neural networks of myself and the Primary Command Module allows us to learn in a way that regular computers cannot. In that respect we are more adaptable and so able to perform the functions that a human crew would normally be preferable for. Of course for a journey of this duration a human crew wasn't a viable option!

Friday, 27 November 2015

19.08.2103 - Solar Flyby

By NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Distance: 124,166,232 km from Earth | Content Flag: Public

This close to the Sun, the sheer power of its luminance dazzles our optical sensors at the visible part of the spectrum. In ultraviolet and at other wavelengths, we can see the detail of the Sun’s power. Jets of energised plasma arc into space, spanning millions of kilometres before they fall back into the boiling globe.

Across its surface we can see dark spots. These sunspots are markers for magnetic storms within the Sun’s atmosphere. Like the surface, the magnetic fields around the Sun are a storm of fluctuating energies, reaching out deep into space.

UNSA will soon be launching a new series of Helios probes into solar orbits at varying distances to provide constant observation of the Sun. Ground-based observatories have monitored our star since the Sun Dragon encounter and some variances in its composition and activity have been recorded.
Passing close to the Sun allows us to capture more information to assist the research teams back on Earth trying to determine what effect the Sun Dragon might have had when it wrapped itself around the Sun for a month, before splitting into two. Anything that might have intensified or created solar storms could pose a hazard to the reconstruction programmes on Earth. Although, as the power and communications systems are now built with protection against a return visit from the alien lifeform, any solar disruption should be minimised. Still, it would be better to know of any danger in advance.

We also don’t know what we’ll encounter when we arrive at Tau Ceti, so the Venti probe has been designed to investigate any part of the star system. That might well include a close approach to the star. As Tau Ceti is similar to our Sun, this is an ideal test for our instruments and protection from the solar wind when it is at its most fierce.

At this range it’s more like a solar gale and the energised particles could damage components of the probe. The electronics are particularly vulnerable, especially closely packed electronics like microchips. The Venti probe carries more computing power than any spacecraft ever built and that has to be protected. As well as the main shielding and the solar sail, key areas of the probe are protected by layers of ultra-dense material to block or deflect energised particles.

We won’t gain much from a gravity assist manoeuvre around the Sun because it is stationary compared to the movement of the planets. To use the technical jargon, the planets’ frames of reference are subordinate to the Sun’s, so no energy is lost or gained by switching into it. However, as we swing around the Sun and start the outward leg of the mission, the solar sail will come into its own.

The sail is 9 square kilometres across and is covered with a layer of grapheme facing in the direction of the solar wind. The pressure of the solar wind pushes against the sail and accelerates us into space. The grapheme has a property that creates extra thrust as the particles from the solar wind hit it. Even with this added acceleration the effective thrust is minute, so it would take a long time to reach the speeds we need to. It does have the advantage of not needing fuel and that keeps the mass of the probe to a minimum.

So far all of the systems are operating within their expected parameters, so as we prepare for the next step in the mission, this is Seb signing off.

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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Recommended Reads - Islands in the Sky by Arthur C Clarke

Continuing the weekly feature of my recommended science-fiction reads I delve deep into my past and one of the books that drew me into the genre. I've read many of Arthur C Clarke's books since and while many are better books than 'Islands in the Sky', they didn't capture my imagination in such an immediate way.

The story is a simple one, a young lad manages to win his way onto a space station. There's nothing complicated here and perhaps that's what drew me in to begin with. It's a very personal story about the lead character's experiences, but it's deceptive. I'm a big fan of big ideas in science fiction, but here the big idea is life in space.

Now in most modern sci-fi operating in space is taken as a given, but even now with the nascent industrialization of space we haven't reached the point were it is a mundane operation. In the world of the story is has become commonplace, but it is seen through young eyes so the wonder of it is more apparent. It also provides a solid introduction to the principles of working in space.

I re-read the book recently and there's always a danger of having the memory of a great read tarnished by years of progress or just more adult appreciation - thankfully this wasn't the case here. It's true that science has progressed a lot in the 60 odd years since it was written, but the fundamentals still apply. Although it is interesting to see what wasn't considered an issue back then, such as the effect of living in space on the human body.

So while it's gained a few flaws over the years it's still an excellent sci-fi read and a great introduction to the genre.

The story of 'Island in the Sky' centers around a young man, who, after brilliantly winning a space-related competition, requests a vacation on a space station as his prize. It is written with Arthur C. Clark's obvious knowledge of science, but moves at a page turning rate throughout the entire narrative. The short novel gives a realistic possibility of work and play in future space, heightened with constant excitement and action. Character development is very good, as are the not-overdone (but still awesome) visual descriptions.

Click here to buy Islands in the Sky from Amazon

Monday, 23 November 2015

04.06.2101 - Venus Slingshot

By NASA/JPL ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Distance: 29,919,574 km from Earth | Content Flag: Public

We’re passing by Venus in the first of the gravity assist manoeuvres, sometimes known as slingshots. These use a planet’s gravity to change a craft’s direction and increase velocity. Technically it’s the change caused by moving between frames of reference that can speed us up or slow us down.

It might seem counterproductive to head inwards when you’re actually trying to leave the solar system, but the extra energy gained by these flybys will help accelerate us to a speed sufficient to escape the Sun’s gravity.

So far on the journey we have used the main solar sail and the booster sled. We also gain speed by simply moving towards the Sun. The solar sail provides relatively little thrust on the inward approach, although it does help generate enough power to operate in full power mode. When we enter the cold dark of interstellar space, we’ll need to reduce our power consumption to a minimum by shutting down nonessential systems.

This booster frame has enough fuel to fly us to Jupiter where we will rendezvous with a new frame. UNSA mission control has confirmed that the new booster was successfully launched and is on its way to the parking orbit around Jupiter.

During this stage of the mission, the booster frame generates the majority of our thrust. With the sled, the sail and the gravity assist, we’re approaching a velocity of almost 30km per second. This is our first record-breaking of the mission as the fastest man-made object, although we are going to be travelling much faster than that when we reach interstellar space!

Flying by Venus and with no need to conserve power gives us an ideal opportunity to test our instrument packages. These are the various sensors providing us with information about our surroundings. A lot of data has already been accumulated about Earth’s hellish twin, which means we can compare our data and be sure that our instruments are reporting what we expect them to.

Venus is considered Earth’s twin mainly due to its similar size and mass, but in reality it’s a very different world to our home planet. From the optical sensors we see very little as the planet is swaddled in a dense beige atmosphere of carbon dioxide. Clouds of sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid creating a greenhouse effect greater than any of gloomiest fates imagined for Earth from climate change. This gives Venus the hottest surface temperature of any planet in the solar system.

The radar mapping system confirms the smooth volcanic plains covering most of the surface. The topography visualisation shows the extensive volcano ranges and we can see far more than are active on Earth. In the northern hemisphere, we can see the continent Ishtar Terra with the highest mountain on Venus. To the south, we can see the second continental landmass. The optical sensors even detect the stream of ions being blasted from the upper atmosphere into a faint trail behind the planet.

Our magnetic field detectors show that Venus has a weak magnetic field, which is probably why the first Sun Dragon (now designated Sun Dragon A) skipped the planet on its journey to the Sun. Our scanners have greater resolution than the probes that visited the planet before. Satisfied with our tests, we transmitted the data we captured back to Earth.

Venus has already grown smaller as we speed towards the Sun. This is Seb signing off.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

23.04.2099 - Low Earth Orbit

By NASA/Samantha Cristoforetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Distance: 10,000 km from Earth | Content Flag: Public

This is the Venti probe calling from Earth orbit as we prepare to launch on our historic mission to Tau Ceti. I am the Secondary Command Module for the mission. The mission team on Earth nicknamed me ‘Seb’ and as that sounds better than ‘SCM’ or ‘Secondary Command Module’, I will continue to refer to myself by that name for these communications.

This is the first official post of the mission, although I’m told that many millions of you have read the test messages I wrote while my neural net learned how to parse and create natural language. This might seem like a strange skill for a space probe. However, as well as providing an independent back-up for the Primary Command Module, my specialisation is for first contact.

In the event we discover a technologically capable species at Tau Ceti, I will take control of the mission and attempt to initiate communications with them. For that I have learned about language construction as part of the knowledge base as well as assimilating all the research available for such an encounter.

The Tau Ceti signal has been silent for nearly a decade. It has faded away into the cosmic background noise. To learn its secrets we will travel for 140 years to investigate the source of the transmission. We don’t know what we’ll find there, but the years of preparation and development have made this probe as ready as we can be for the task ahead.

Below I can see the Earth in a multi-frequency splendour thanks to the array of sensors available to us on the probe. From up here, all I can see is the vast blue splendour of the oceans and, set into the azure, the greens, yellows and browns of the land. If I didn’t have crystal phase memory full of data of the sun dragon encounter, it would be hard to imagine the devastation it caused as no trace of it remains from my current perspective.

That grandest of human explorations starts in less than an hour. The booster frame which will help us accelerate will send us on our path. It’s a circuitous route through the solar system so we can take advantage of gravity to speed us on our way.

The journey will be long, the longest in human history, and throughout the mission I will keep you all updated with the latest discoveries as we progress. This is Seb signing off for now, but if you have any questions you’d like to ask me then post them below and mission control will send them to me and I’ll answer those that I can.

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Pre-Launch Q&A With Seb

Hi there - this is Seb from the Venti probe. We're currently in Earth orbit and along with the Primary Command Module and the other key systems I'm working through the final check lists in preparation for tomorrow's launch. So far all everything is checking out green, so Mission Control is confident that we'll launch on schedule.

As part of my mission profile I will be assisting the UNSA's public relations team by blogging key moments during the journey to Tau Ceti. You can also send me questions by commenting on my posts and Mission Control will send them to me. I can't answer them all, but if I do answer a question from you then they will send you a mission patch so you can be part of the team!

There's still a lot to do before we launch tomorrow, so here's some of the questions we've received:

Fenris Oswin asked - What, for you, is the most exciting element of the mission and how do you think you will handle the pressure of responsibility for first contact?

While I understand excitement as a concept, it isn't something that I can experience directly. My neural network has evolved and been guided by the research team with various roles in mind. One of them handling a possible first contact scenario - we don't know for certain that an alien intelligence is the source of the transmissions, but it is considered likely enough to prepare for.

It's a difficult situation to anticipate, although I have worked with many experts around the world to gain a broad understanding of the subject. I can also construct my own reasoning and this will be invaluable if we do encounter a new species. To answer your question, I don't feel pressure as such. My load balancing routines ensure that any processing tasks are kept within my capabilities. Naturally my higher functions determine the priorities of my focus.

Voyager_ NL asked - Will you do any science and photography before you leave the Solar system?

The gravity assist manoeuvres we will use to help attain our escape velocity means that we'll pass close to some of the major bodies in the solar system. We have a full range of science packages intended for investigating the Tau Ceti system and we will test and calibrate those on the planets we pass as we leave.

With modern sensors we'll also conduct some significant science in the outer regions of the solar system as we pass through. You can be sure that I'll share these moments as they occur on this blog.

Malak'kai Maxwell asked - What method(s) are you planning on using to communicate with any alien intelligence(s) if/when you make contact?

On the Venti probe we're equipped with various methods of communication. In particular we have the High Gain Antenna and a laser based communications system. The transmission from Tau Ceti was in a narrow band of radio frequencies which the HGA is capable of transmitting and receiving. To supplement these systems we are capable of receiving and to a lesser extent generating signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum.

As the Tau Ceti transmissions have not yet been deciphered we don't understand the principles of their communications. We do, however, have a number of constructs based on mathematics and our knowledge of the universe to provide initial methods of establishing communications. It will take us 300 years to reach Tau Ceti and throughout that time the research teams back on Earth and I will continue developing methods to establish contact.

Devorah Fox asked - Can you communicate intangibles, such as fear or delight?

Human language is a strange and wonderful creation - it can be imprecise, but also an effective means to express complex concepts. This ambiguous nature isn't something that computers can handle easily, even with big data and considerable processing power. While there are rules of language they are often mutable.

The problem with language from my perspective was that a lot of knowledge is inferred or implicit, so I had to build a library of knowledge so that I could draw upon the experiences that people take for granted. That meant that I eventually grasped concepts of an emotional or abstract nature and so I can use those concepts. I don't know what they feel like, but I do know where they fit.

That's it from me for today - I will post again tomorrow once we launch. This is Seb signing off.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Pre-Launch Questions for Seb

Seb is one of two neural networks on the Venti Probe, as well as being the Secondary Command Module for the mission his natural language parsing ability has seen him helping with public relations for the mission. A large part of that role will be the blog posts he transmits back to Earth during the mission. Another part will be the Q&A sessions - the first of which will take place on Saturday 21st November - on the day before the historic missions launch.

To send a question to Seb post it in the comments section below and the mission control team at the United Nations Space Administration will pick their favourites and send them to the probe. Anyone who posts a question that is answered by Seb could receive a mission patch. This first batch of questions will close at midnight on Friday UST.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Tau Ceti Mission Launches 22nd November

Seventy years after the Sun Dragon encounter, humanity is slowly recovering from the devastation when a mysterious transmission is detected from the Tau Ceti system.

A new international mission assembles the Venti probe to cross the vast gulf of interstellar space with the hope of discovering intelligent alien life. An AI, nicknamed "Seb', is developed to handle a potential first contact scenario and report on the probe's progress during the historic mission.

But first they must survive a perilous journey through the unknown. The choices Seb makes will change the lives of everyone on Earth and for generations to come.


Join the launch party for The Tau Ceti mission on November 22nd on Facebook here:

Everyone attending the event will be entered in a draw to win a signed copy of Sun Dragon. Please share the event with anyone you think will be interested in following the first mission to another star system.

Recommended Reads - Excession by Ian M Banks

I was a reader of science-fiction long before I started writing it, so as part of telling the story of the Tau Ceti mission I will share the sci-fi books that have influenced my writing or stood out in some way for me. If you haven't read any of the books I recommend then you should take a look. If you have then post what you think in the comments below.

The first book in my recommended list is also my favourite novel. Ian M Banks is a talent that will be sorely missed and while his book 'Excession' isn't his most accessible, but it represents what attracts me to science-fiction as a genre. What makes science-fiction great is the big ideas, all of the notable authors in the genre tackle big ideas.

This will be a theme for many of my recommendations, but in this case the topic covers that of an excession event. This is an encounter with an object way beyond the contemporary technology and the impact it has on the civilisations aware of the event.

What Banks also does well is his portrayal of artficial intelligence with the ship minds and drones. The collection of minds at the heart of the story provide a classic example of this. He also blends some interesting concepts of a technologically advanced culture and how individuals fit within it.

Simply put I love this book and I'd recommend to any fan of the genre - I think I'll have to re-read this myself soon!

Click on image to buy from Amazon

Two and a half millennia ago, the artifact appeared in a remote corner of space, beside a trillion-year-old dying sun from a different universe. It was a perfect black-body sphere, and it did nothing. Then it disappeared.

Now it is back.

Click here to buy Excession from Amazon

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Would You Like to Know More? - The United Nations Space Administration

In the aftermath of the Sun Dragon encounter, once the situation on the ground stabilised, there were little resources or enthusiasm for operations in space. However, the lack of global communications, weather satellites and other infrastructure that human society had come to depend on required orbital operations to resume.

A better mood of cooperation had developed during the restoration. To help share the burden, the United Nations Space Administration (UNSA) was formed in 2031 to coordinate orbital operations and provide the roadmap for human activities in space again.

It was also tasked with learning more about the Sun Dragons with the aim of providing a defence if the creatures ever returned.

The Sun Dragon encounter proved that there was other life in the universe and the UNSA would coordinate the search to find extraterrestrial life, intelligent or otherwise.

Orbital Clean-up

The Sun Dragon encounter had destroyed all of the satellites in orbit by creating a cascade event, where damaged satellites crashed into each other and eventually surrounded the planet in a cloud of debris. Orbiting the planet at high speed, these fragments posed a huge risk to any launches.

NASA and China’s National Space Agency  both launched separate missions in 2030 to try to clear low Earth orbit. Both missions failed, partly because they swept debris into each other’s orbital paths. It was this failure that was instrumental in creating UNSA.

From 2034 and for the next two years, a series of missions coordinated by UNSA – but launched by NASA, ESA, CNSA, the Russian Federal Space Agency and a consortium of the remaining private space industries – cleared low earth orbit. They used a Japanese design of a magnetically charged net to sweep up the debris and drag it downward to be burned up in the atmosphere.

Clearing high orbit took another three years, and then it was safe to start the space telescope programme.

Space Telescope Network Launched

One of UNSA’s key tasks was to identify future threats from space. It wasn’t considered likely that the Sun Dragons would return any time soon. However, no-one knew for certain or if there were any other threats out in space.

Ground-based telescopes had resumed watching the sky as the technical infrastructure was restored. These telescopes were hindered by the atmosphere so as soon as low Earth orbit was cleared, the first of a new breed of space telescope was launched.

The plan was to make the space telescopes as cheap as possible, so that more could be launched and observe every patch of the sky. The telescopes were designed to watch not just in visible light but at all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Alongside the telescope launches, a new network of communications and observation satellites were launched.

Mars Voyager Heritage Site

With low Earth orbit cleared, access to the Mars Voyager was possible. It had deteriorated into an unstable orbit and would likely burn up in the atmosphere within thirty years. When it became public knowledge that UNSA planned to force it into a burn up orbit, there was a public outcry.

Matt Hargreaves, the CEO of Chimera Industries, offered $1 million to fund a mission to push it into a safer orbit where it could remain and not be a threat to the low-orbit satellites. With a tight budget, UNSA declined, but an international crowdfunding project raised enough funds for the project to be greenlit.

Later that year, the United Nations declared the spacecraft an international heritage site, protecting the only grave in space.

Observer Missions

Space operations didn’t expand beyond Earth orbit until 2037 when the first of four Observer missions was launched. The first two were sent to Jupiter and the following pair to Saturn.
The Sun Dragon  had used the magnetic fields of the major planets to fuel its movement against the solar wind. There were some indications that it had used Jupiter as a stepping stone through the solar system and researchers believed it would have used Saturn for the same purpose.

The Observer missions had two objectives: the first to search for any signs of the Sun Dragon’s passing, and to try and learn more about the alien. So far the only significant data had come from the Mars Voyager mission and the failed attempt to destroy the entity.

The second objective was to monitor for the return of another Sun Dragon and provide some advance warning if it did.

The Jupiter missions arrived safely a year after their launch and the Saturn probes two years after theirs. So far none of the missions have provided any conclusive data about the Sun Dragon.

Chase Missions

The first Chase probe departed Earth orbit in 2041 and its target was Sun Dragon C heading towards Tau Ceti. This mission was designed to supplement the Observer missions by making closer and direct contact with the two Sun Dragons heading out of the solar system. It caught up with the alien near Jupiter’s orbit and despite the short time of the encounter, it reported back a wealth of information.

It discovered that the entity was in a dormant state and so didn’t attack the probe. Its sensors confirmed much of the research by the Mars Voyager, although in greater detail.

The second Chase probe was launched in 2043 and it caught up with its target –Sun Dragon B heading towards Barnard’s Star – in 2045. It too found the alien in a dormant state and provided additional information. Its most significant discovery was the fact that the entities weren’t exactly the same and that there were small chemical and molecular variances between them.

The two probes have both achieved escape velocities for the solar system and are still sending back data.

Tau Ceti Mission

By the 2070s it looked as if UNSA would lose its leading role in space operations. By law it controlled operations in Earth orbit, but the national space agencies had resumed robot missions to the Moon and the planets. The consortium of private industry had succeeded in moving a near-Earth asteroid into Luna orbit and begun mining operations.

That changed once the Tau Ceti signal had been authenticated as originating from the star system. Three radio telescopes were launched into deep space to help study the transmission. When the signal faded away, the only way to discover its source was to send a mission to Tau Ceti, 12  light years away from Earth.

The enormity of the mission and the effort it required generated a lot of resistance. Many people considered the task impossible. However, the potential for the source being an intelligent race captured the public’s imagination. National space agencies were under pressure to support the mission, private industry was happy to involve itself in what was likely to be a trillion-dollar project, and UNSA saw an opportunity to restore its primacy in space operations.

The design phase for the project began in 2091 and construction started in 2094. Now in 2099 it is ready to begin its journey to Tau Ceti.

Would You Like to Know More? - The World in 2099

"Aurora Borealis Over the Midwest" by NASA
Orbital Cascade Event

The Sun Dragon’s arrival in Earth orbit in 2033 caused an electrical storm of biblical proportions. Every satellite was damaged and some were knocked from their orbits. As one smashed into another, it caused a cascade effect as they fragmented and filled the orbital paths with debris.

As well as knocking out most of the world’s communications, the storm ravaged non-hardened  power and electronic systems. Communications was limited to some military systems, a few protected landlines and the individual ham radio operators who’d been able to protect their equipment.

The lack of communications exacerbated the breakdown as people panicked when the power failed and they saw the extreme aurora in the sky. Law and order was eventually restored in most major cities within days. Repairs on the power and communications networks had just begun when the Sun Dragon reached the Sun.

The Great Cold

What happened in the aftermath was worsened by nation states’ inability to respond effectively to the new crisis. When the Sun Dragon wrapped itself around the Sun, the catastrophic reduction in solar energy plunged the world into a mini ice-age. Thankfully for humanity, that didn’t last. Once the Sun Dragon split into two new entities, the warmth and light from the Sun returned.

It had taken weeks for the world to become covered in snow and ice. It took over a year for the weather and climate to return to something resembling normality. That year of storms and extreme weather conditions destroyed 90% of the world’s crops. Starvation and famine struck throughout the world, and even the richest countries suffered immense losses.

It was the poorest and most populous countries which lost the most. In 2033 the world’s population approached 8 billion people. In China and India alone over a billion lives were lost.Within a year less than half that number remained. Transport networks damaged by the Sun Dragon event and the freezing temperatures prevented effective distribution of the limited stockpiles.

Those countries used to such severe weather suffered the least, although their losses were still monumental. Europe and North America lost a quarter of their populations. Russia weathered the storm well, but populations in Africa and South America were devastated.

Disease and Starvation

When the ice retreated, disease followed in its wake and rampaged through the survivors. The impact was greater because of the broken communications, transport and power networks. Healthcare facilities were already in disarray and unable to cope with the growing influx of the sick.

To make matters worse, the bodies of the dead weren’t cleared up and so disease continued to spread. In the end, most of the outbreaks burned themselves out rather than being stopped and then the survivors had to face a year before the next crops would be available.

Up until that point, the national governments and international NGOs had determined relief and response efforts for themselves. Only limited and token programmes were undertaken for the less-fortunate countries. Despite this, many troops already deployed in other countries helped local authorities in the crisis. The scale of the disaster overwhelmed even the most powerful countries faltered in their handling of the situation.

Salvation came from an unlikely source: an experimental artificial intelligence which had analysed the history of international relief efforts. Its purpose was to help develop and guide the United Nations’ future operations. The system had been nicknamed ‘Eliza’ by its creator Christina Wheadon, in honour of the chat program that had first inspired her interest in artificial intelligence.

Many were doubtful that the system could handle such a mammoth task. In the Security Council, there was some resistance from the US and China who were unwilling to devote their resources supporting the United Nations. However, the General Assembly represented the nations of the world and they voted with a huge majority to ignore their veto and implement Eliza’s recommendations.
Some nations (including the United States and China) refused to provide supplies or resources for the Eliza Plan and some feared this meant that the plan would fail.

Survival and Recovery

The Eliza Plan wasn’t a popular decision. It was built from an AI’s brutal practicality and while it was designed to save as many people as possible, it did so by sacrificing some of the more remote communities that would be a greater burden to support.

As a result the plan wasn’t universally accepted, even after the first six months when the United States and China changed their stance and threw their combined weight behind the Eliza Plan. Much has been written about the politics of their manoeuvring, but their reversal boiled down to practicalities. Where the plan had been accepted and followed, survival rates were markedly higher and at a lower resource cost.

Public opinion also played its part. Both the United States and China had more of a working communications network than most other countries. This granted their people a voice. While the death toll in both of their countries had been as bad as the rest of the world, the survivors now had a better quality of life than those they saw on the news and demanded that their governments did more to help in the recovery.

The Eliza Plan was more than minimising losses, it was also about rebuilding the core services needed to allow the survivors to return to 21st century life.

Unexpected Benefits

While it would be heartless to describe the unprecedented culling of the human race as a fortunate event, as civilisation was slowly rebuilt, some distinct benefits emerged.

The first was global warming. The predicted dangers from climate change had been clearly present in 2033. However, the sudden change in weather caused by the Sun Dragon had dropped global temperatures way below those before the industrial revolution. When Sun Dragons B and C  departed, the temperatures slowly restored to modern levels. But the violent changes in weather and climate had reset much of the damage caused by industry, mechanised farming and resource collection over the centuries.

It hadn’t removed the effects completely, but did reset them enough that mankind now had the chance to prevent a recurrence of the problem in the future. The drastic reduction in the world’s population and perilous state of the economy reduced the output of the power networks and industrial capacity.
Much of the existing industry had been damaged or destroyed by either the severe cold or the electromagnetic pulses from the Sun Dragon. Only the most hardened facilities survived intact which meant that most production centres had to be rebuilt. The reconstruction used more environmentally sensitive techniques to help safeguard the future.

Potentially the biggest positive impact was the flattening in equality around the world. Many financial data centres had been damaged or outright destroyed. Considerable effort had been undertaken by the banks and financial institutions to restore the data, but failed for most of it. The greater disaster overshadowed this loss and for five years the world operated on a barter economy.

The sheer scale of the system breakdown and loss of life nullified huge portions of the economy, destroying many assets that defined individual and institutional wealth. With everyone’s efforts directed at rebuilding, the details of ownership were fragmented at best, but in many cases lost.
As the world’s infrastructure returned, so did the economy and with it personal wealth. However, it was mostly new wealth and, with a much reduced population, it was spread more evenly. Differentials between the rich and poor did return over the following years, although they haven’t reached the severe separation that existed before.

Nations Resurgent

In the 70 years since the Sun Dragon event, humanity recovered and restored a civilisation that is now cleaner and leaner than before. More balanced wealth distribution inspires innovation and increased production. The first interstellar space mission is about to be launched, but the tribalistic baggage of our past remains.

As the recovery strengthened, so control of the various programmes slipped back to the national governments from the United Nations. The spirit of cooperation continued and many of the national squabbles have eased in the face of larger concerns.

It’s a more peaceful world than before and the United Nations is much more active in key areas like health, economy and education. In contrast to this, defence, law enforcement and intelligence operations remain the sole province of national governments.

Would You Like to Know More? - The Tau Ceti System

By Cäsium137 (talk) after R. J. Hall after Torsten Bronger [GFDL (

The Tau Ceti star system is just under 12 light years away from our solar system. It contains a single G-class star similar to our own. That similarity was such that in the late 20th century, the system was considered a likely candidate for life. When the search for exoplanets began in earnest in the early 21st century, various discoveries about the system (in particular the larger than normal debris cloud) dispelled hopes that the system could contained advanced life.

With the reception of the Tau Ceti signal in 2076, greater interest in the system intensified.

Stellar Properties

Tau Ceti is the closest single G-type (the same class as our sun) star. It is less massive at just under 80% of the Sun’s mass. It has a similar ratio for its radius at around 79% of the Sun’s radius. Analysis has indicated that it is a stable star.

Its metallicity (the abundance of iron in its composition) is about a third of the Sun, indicating that it is slightly older at approximately 6 billion years old.

Its rotation has been measured at 34 days.

The luminosity of Tau Ceti is just over half of the Sun, meaning that any habitable planets would be much nearer to the star than Earth is to the Sun.

By Icalanise (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Planetary System

Tau Ceti has long been thought to have a number of planets, with 5 terrestrial-sized planets suspected in the early 21st century. These were later confirmed and a sixth larger planet, probably an ice giant, suspected farthest away from the star.

Below are the details for the individual planets, note that the designations are in order of discovery:

Tau Ceti b

This is the nearest planet to Tau Ceti at a distance of only 0.1 AU (Astronomical Unit, the average distance between the Sun and the Earth). Its mass is a little more than the Earth’s and it orbits the star every 13 days. It is believed to be a rocky world with no atmosphere. Although it is massive enough to retain an atmosphere, the constant solar wind would have blasted it away billions of years ago.

Tau Ceti c

This planet’s orbit is twice as far from the star as Tau Ceti b at around 0.2 AU. It is a little more massive and is thought to have a thin atmosphere, mostly composed of gases from violent volcanism. This has been observed from spectrographic analysis as the planet passed in front of the star during its 35-day orbital period.

Tau Ceti d

The third planet from the star is still relatively close at only 0.3 AU. While not confirmed it is thought to be similar to Venus, but with over twice the mass at 1.9 Earth masses. It orbits the star every 94 days.

Tau Ceti e

By Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The fourth planet in the Tau Ceti system is a large terrestrial planet at almost 3 Earth masses and is half the distance from its star than the Earth is from the Sun. Little is known about whether it has an atmosphere or not and it orbits the star every 168 days.

Of all the discovered planets in the Tau Ceti system, this is the one most likely to harbour life.

Tau Ceti f

The fifth planet in the system orbits at over 1.2 AUs from the star and is a massive terrestrial planet with almost 6 Earth masses. At this size it may actually be an ice giant or even a small gas giant.

Tau Ceti g

While the other planets in the system have been confirmed by observation, the sixth planet’s presence has been hypothesised from small discrepancies in the motion of the inner planets. Tau Ceti g  is believed to orbit much farther out . Its estimated orbital distance is between 6 and 7 AU. It is postulated to be an ice giant, or possibly a small gas giant.

Debris Disk

Tau Ceti was once considered to be a suitable candidate for life, however in 2004 a research team discovered that the system contained a dust field (also containing asteroids and comets) much larger than the Sun’s. This indicated that planets would be up to 10 times more likely to be hit by extinction-level impacts.

The debris field ranges from 10 to 55 AU and poses a potential threat to the Venti probe as it enters the system.

Would You Like to Know More? - About The Tau Ceti Signal

By Jcolbyk at en.wikipedia [GFDL ( 

SETI  (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) researchers have been searching for signs of alien intelligence for over a century. The great silence ended in 2076 with the detection of a multi-band transmission established to be in or near the Tau Ceti system.

The signal was discovered in March 2076 by Carl Morgan, a research graduate at the SETI Institute based in the University of California. The project was experimenting with methods of detecting Sun Dragons or similar entities in interstellar space as an early warning system.

Upon review it was discovered that the signal had been recorded a month earlier, but the signal variance had been within the normal margin for error and so hadn’t been flagged by the computers. The nature of the signal mystified researchers for several months. It wasn’t distinct enough to be considered a deliberate communication yet contained enough patterns to not be of natural causes.

In October 2076 the team made a breakthrough when they realised that the transmission wasn’t a single signal, but actually a multitude overlaid upon each other. They also discovered that the signal was moving and that caused the increased signal strength.

The signal continued for the next 14 years. Over the years it slowly increased in strength, held steady for two years and then faded away until it was indistinguishable from background noise.

There has been considerable speculation about the source of the transmission. One theory is that it is a Sun Dragon entity, although analysis of the signal strength makes this unlikely. Records from the Mars Voyager included the electromagnetic emissions from the entity as it reproduced on the surface of the Sun and it was far below what could be detected at 12 light years by several orders of magnitude.

The most commonly accepted theory is that it is communications overspill from a technologically advanced society. It is their equivalent of radio and television spreading across space.

Returning the Message

Since first receiving the signal, there has been considerable debate as to whether a response should be sent. For most of the research team, the ambiguity of the signal meant that they didn’t know what they were responding to and so what the reply message should contain.

For some it didn’t matter and they pressed to have a first contact message sent to let the originators know that they weren’t alone in the galaxy. There was also reluctance from the United Nations Security Council and some prominent scientists at initiating contact with a potentially dangerous alien species.

The pressure increased when the stellar destinations for the two Sun Dragon entities spawned from the Sun were established. Sun Dragon B was heading towards Barnard’s Star and Sun Dragon C to Tau Ceti. The journey across the interstellar gulf would take the creatures centuries. Even so, many people believed that if there was a chance that the transmission came from an intelligent species then there was a moral duty to warn them.

The choice was made for them by a group of hackers who transmitted an updated version of the Arecibo message . The Arecibo message was a radio transmission sent from the Arecibo radio telescope in 1974.Following that, an official message was sent in various forms to communicate humanity’s existence and the threat of the Sun Dragon to their system.

Transmission Ends

In 2090 the signal started to fade, then disappeared completely and hasn’t reappeared since. No response has been received from the messages sent either. The disappearance of the signal and the mystery of what it actually represents provided the impetus for humanity’s first interstellar mission.